Zach Vancas has never been able to see much at night.
“I look up at the night sky — it’s just black and then the moon. I’ve never seen stars,” Vancas said.
Vancas was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) when he was 14. RP is a degenerative retinal condition that causes the cones and rods in your eyes to slowly waste away over time until you go blind.
“It’s a very progressive condition and it’s also very rare,” Vancas said.
One day he was hanging out with his friend, Sam Ortgies, and talking about night vision products for recreational shooting.
Vancas knew how the products that were already out on the market worked.
“It’s actually analog tech and how it takes in the photons, converts into electrons, amplifies them, shines into a green phosphor screen, which glows, thus allowing you to see and it does that three, four, five times, and it can multiply light 10 to 20,000 times,” he said.
Vancas and Ortgies started thinking they could probably create the product they were desiring just for their own, personal use.
Vancas’ case of RP is even more rare than just having the condition itself. He should’ve lost his vision by the time he was 16. He’s 20 now and has most of his vision, but he significantly suffers from patchy peripheral vision and night blindness.
“The cones and rods in my eyes do not pick up an adequate amount of light. So in dim or low-lit areas, such as a movie theater, it’s pitch black,” Vancas said. “And that’s the biggest issue with things. And that’s the hardest thing to deal with.”
Vancas’ condition hinders him from a lot of things, including going to dim-lit restaurants and going to events such as movies and concerts.
“I don’t like going to movies, I just have to make sure that people can get me to my seat. And then make sure I do not have to get up in the middle of the movie,” Vancas said. “Like before the movie starts, kind of touch and go, but once the movie starts and the lights go, it’s pitch black, I can’t see anything.”
Legally, he can drive during the day but he chooses not to because of his patchy peripheral vision. He also has to make sure he’s not walking alone at night because he can’t see.
“I just kind of dealt with it for a while,” he said. “I’ve always had friends that are really helpful with it, and I never really thought of a way out.”
At UNL, Vancas was enrolled in an entrepreneurship class and his professor made everyone in the class sign up for the 3-2-1 Quick Pitch at the Center for Entrepreneurship. He decided he was going to pitch the idea of a night vision alternative, but ended up changing the targeted audience to be those who are visually impaired.
“The goal was that we want to create a compact, lightweight, affordable and easy-to-use night vision alternative for those of us with visual impairments, given that military night vision is like $10,000, and that’s kind of your only alternative other than flashlights, staying at home, or relying on street lights,” Vancas said.
Vancas ended up being one of three winners in his flight at the quick pitch competition.
However, that wasn’t the end of the idea.
Vancas received an email from his professor the next day introducing him to one of the judges who had been at the 3-2-1 Quick Pitch. The judge really liked the idea and wanted to mentor Vancas and Ortgies as they go forward with the product as a business.
“I’m like, ‘holy s***, okay,’” Vancas said.
Since then, they’ve been in contact with a network of people to help them get the business going.
The plan for the actual product is for it to be a user friendly consumer product, like designer eyewear glasses.
“So you can walk around with it. It’s not gonna be as good as your normal day vision, you know, but it’s so you have that ability to be independent, walk around at night, or in dark environments,” he said.
The business is still in the beginning stages, but Vancas is excited for what the product will mean for him and others affected by Retinitis Pigmentosa.
“It will be the first tangible representation of hope that we can fix this, you know, because as of now there’s no cure for Retinitis Pigmentosa,” he said. “And while no, this isn’t a cure, it’s just treating one of the symptoms, it’s still a step in the right direction.”